Haiku : Writing rules

Haiku as a public poetry.

Haiku is a public poetry.

Contrary to Western poetry, it becomes public, is openly criticized, and rewritten without ulterior motives.

The Japanese poetic tradition is rich in connected forms, written by several authors, and in literary contests of small or great significance (kukai).

Haiku is born in that climate.

On can identify five media for haïku (according to an article by Ryu Yotsuya in the first issue of the Mushigane Review) :

  1. kukai: For Basho, kukai was the place for experimenting and spreading.
  2. newspapers: Shiki published his studies and articles in newspapers. Haiku taikai belong in this category.
  3. Haiku clubs reviews: Kyoshi Takahama created a system of haiku clubs. He chose haïku sent by his readers and published them in his monthly review in in the order of preference.
  4. General haïku reviews: "Haïku Kenkyu", the first general haiku review was founded in 1934. It became the prime mover of the Shinko haiku movement, which criticized the Kyoshi system.
  5. Haiku circles reviews: Shinko haiku poets published haiku circle reviews, i. e., reviews with no master. " Kyoko haiku " (Kyoto University haiku, 1933-40) was the most remarkable example. Avant-garde haiku poets also founded similar reviews in the 50s and 60s.

Meetings and Exchanges

Connected poems (renga) are first written in aristocratic meetings, then in more popular ones. Everybody writes a verse, as a sequel to only the previous one.. But contrary to the Western "cadavre exquis, " here also exist very strict rules.

Renga and haikai (haikai renga) were written collectively in the same place and in the same day.

Journeys also played an important role in the history of renga. The 15th century was in Japan a time of fierce warfare. All feudal lords fought and Kyoto, the capital, was devastated. Renga masters travelled throughout the entire country to escape the war and to look for protectors, which resulted in renga spreading to the provinces and popularizing that type of poetry. These conditions were similar to those of the scholars fleeing Constantinople, which gave rise to the Renaissance in Europe.

Durant the Edo era (1620-1868), poems travelled "on foot " , with the peddlars. Answers and sequels were eagerly awaited. They were publicly commented on. This network of exchanges acquired a certain economic, social, and political importance in the old Japanese society.


On certain occasions, haiku are composed in meetings ranging from 3 to 100 participants: kukai. Members meet in a room to compose and submit their haku to evaluation by the group. All participants present their poems on a sheet, to be rewritten by someone else. The sheets of paper circulate, and participants select what they consider to be the best ones. The results are made public, a vote is taken ,and points are tallied. The most appreciated haiku is not the one which has earned the most points, but the one selected by the master.

They are several kinds of kukai :


Contests (haiki taikai) are organized. On must write a haiku which must contain a given word. Haiku are submitted and results published. This phenomenon is still popular today in Japan. There are contests which bring thousands of people together, often with no other reward than recognition by other parrticipants.

Distribution Lists

Today, they are distribution lists on the Internet. One can subscribe to either read or write poems. One posts one's haïku by e-mail and each subscriber receives a copy by e-mail. Everyone one can pass judgement, by e-mail, either privately or on the distribution list. Everybody can then read all messages and participate.

It is perfectly normal for a participant decides to rewrite another's poem, reposting the original followed by the new version. They are sometimes strings of versions, contributed by many.

A list, like the Shiki List with its worldwide audience, operates 24 hours a day and seven days a week, with more than 100 messages posted daily. It is very active: A haïku on a subject in the news can trigger tens of haiku on the theme, within a few hours.

These lists are very stable. There is a climate of confidence, of positive critique. A moderator is usually not needed. One can write and use one's real name. The group works like a community. There is no supreme authority; members are on the same footing; participants are recognized for their merit; and everybody can pass judgement on the work of others.